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Emerging Subjects of the New Economy: Tracing Economic Growth in Mongolia

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Project Update – March 2016

ucsaar011 March 2016

At the end of February the UCL members of our research group met at a farm in Sussex, South West England, for a four-day writing and research retreat. This was a chance to reflect on the first phase of our fieldwork and discuss emerging themes, such as talk of an impending economic ‘crisis’ (khyamral) in Mongolia, issues of debt and its ‘digestion’, balancing political dilemmas, the stalling or suspension of many businesses, and the looming elections.

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The ‘farm’ in Sussex, England.

Our work space around the kitchen table.

 

A few weeks ago we met with Prof Hanne Petersen, a scholar of legal cultures at the University of Copenhagen, to discuss the changing global economic landscape. Reflecting on this discussion through our own material we sense that the slowdown of the Chinese economy, coupled with the decline of the global commodity super-cycle signals the passing of an era of exceptional growth in the region.

What format the new era will take, or what beginning or end it may have is, however, essentially unknown. In fact, the idea of an impending crisis manifests as a ‘low hum’ in the imagination of many in Mongolia, meaning that it is very hard to place accusation or blame on any single person or system. Even the idea of what is knowable is coming into question as the debt of the country has spiralled out of control in a web of obligations that is impossible to untangle.

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Hedwig and Bumochir air mapping eastern Mongolia during a discussion on the Khalkh Gol Free Trade Zone.

 

At the farm we engaged in some experimental writing tasks to try to describe this ‘new era’, and wrote short creative writing pieces and character descriptions for our ethnographies, which we also discussed in detail. We also went on some beautiful runs, cooked meals together, visited local pubs, and attempted to heat hot tubs nestled in the forest. The setting was very inspiring.

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We were blessed with sunny days during an otherwise rainy end of February.

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The not-so-hot hot tub.

Different strands planned for the project were also discussed and we allocated responsibility for several forthcoming events, including a workshop at the National University of Mongolia in November (provisionally entitled Uncovering ‘Mongolian-made’ Capitalism), as well as plans for a documentary series on Mongolian television that focuses on five themes of our research, a conference in 2017, and a multi-authored article on ideas about temporary possession, among other things. Watch this space for more news!

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Delegating tasks and planning upcoming events.

 

This week we presented some of our ideas at a workshop at UCL with Madeleine Reeves (University of Manchester) and Gisa Weszkalnys (London School of Economics), both of whom work on theoretical ideas that have become important to our research.  We received important feedback on our ethnographies and on what to focus on for our second phase of fieldwork, which will commence over the next few weeks for some of us, while others are already in Mongolia.

 

A stroll to the local pub.

 

It is clear that the structure of our project is beginning to generate some very interesting theoretical insights. Unlike other research projects that might take a single question and explore how it differs in various geographical and cultural contexts, we are finding that the structure of our project has given rise to very different ways of viewing similar material in a single country. While we are all focusing on the Mongolian economy in some way, we are increasingly differentiating our approaches and theoretical contributions to this phenomenon, illuminating that the economy itself is never a singular stable entity.

The different theoretical registers that are beginning to emerge out of our ethnographies also points to the multiple ways in which a single phenomena is experienced and understood, from the transformation of infrastructures and bureaucracy, to the dilemmas between state, society, and companies, as well as personal life histories and individual trading strategies. While points of comparison and threads weave between each of our studies, they are also increasingly emerging as different from each other in very interesting ways. We now look forward to returning to our fieldwork and to understanding further the different ways in which the changes in Mongolia are being shaped and experienced.

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Lauren, Rebekah, Hedwig, Rebecca, and Bumochir.

 

Workshop Recap: ‘Figuring out the Future: Emerging Subjects and the Flux of the Economic Present’

ucsawat18 June 2015

On the 9th of June, our project held a pre-fieldwork workshop entitled ‘Figuring out the Future: Emerging subjects and the flux of the economic present’ at UCL Anthropology. The day-long event, organized by Rebekah Plueckhahn and Pascale Searle, was attended by colleagues from Oxford and Cambridge, as well as UCL and other London Universities. It ended with a wine reception in our courtyard, kindly arranged by Christopher Kaplonski.

In the past year, our group has been reading assorted theoretical works together, allowing us to reflect on our individual ethnographic projects and discuss unfurling economic and political changes in Mongolia. The aim of the workshop was to introduce our ideas on a series of shared themes to a diverse audience, as well as present concrete ethnographic studies that will, it is imagined, investigate some of these themes.

Emerging Subjects Presentators

The workshop was divided into two thematic panels: ‘Economic Subjectivities’ & ‘The Politics of Infrastructure’. In each session, the themes, and the questions or hypotheses arising from them were presented, followed by different research proposals. Within ‘Economic Subjectivities’, for example, we presented theoretical approaches to ideas about neoliberalism, state formation, and subjectivity in the social sciences. Individual research papers relating to these topics were then presented, including research on (economic) nationalism; the use of different ‘zones of experimentation’ like Facebook, loans and lifestyle centres; and small-scale female migrant traders. Within ‘The Politics of Infrastructure’, approaches to the study of temporality, the construction of resources, infrastructure and the larger perception of the environment (i.e. the emergence of the Anthropocene) were presented. Projects directly addressing these ideas included changing concepts of property and ownership in Mongolia, as well as examining the proliferation of dust – and its ability to suspend several ideas at once – through mining in the Gobi desert. Each session was chaired by a different person – Joseph Bristley and Tom McDonald – who guided the discussion and posed some important questions.

Workshop Participants

Two ethnographically-derived concepts shaped the over-all discussions – the idea of prefiguration and resilience. Without the capacity to envision and enact stable futures, individuals increasingly ‘prefigure’—act out hoped for or expected futures in the present. At the same time, recent economic, development and environmental discourses, have shifted the sphere of responsibility for economic, social and global environmental change on to subjects. As a result, subjects (both people and points of concern) and their communities have been encouraged to become ‘resilient’—i.e. adapt and overcome instability through their own endeavours. Focusing on practices of prefiguration and resilience allows us to explore how new subjectivities and forms of collective activity are emerging ethnographically in Mongolia.

Our concluding round table discussion was led by Allen Abramson, who contributed many astute comments and questions regarding the theoretical trajectory of our project. He noted that none of our projects focus on nomadism—a previous staple of Mongolian ethnography and wondered if we saw economic change in Mongolia as impacted by previous cultural tropes, or as engendering new forms of relationality. Where have the old subjects gone, if we are focusing on ‘emergence’?

Bum-Ochir Dulam Presentation

As alluded in our title, our project provocatively uses the term ‘emerging’ to examine whether current local economic developments are in fact ‘new’, or another manifestation of constant cultural change. We draw inspiration from geographers (like J.K. Gibson-Graham) and anthropologists of financialization (like Bill Maurer and Caitlin Zaloom) by assuming that the economy is constantly changing and always spatially-variegated. In this vein, discussions explored the role of religion and nomadism in contemporary Mongolia with explanations that concepts of karma, fortune, space and time in Buddhism are important for understanding any unfolding changes. ‘Emergence’ evokes ideas about a progressive vision towards a better future—a perspective we will query through ethnographic documentation of Mongolian reactions to constant economic flux.

Workshop Participants

As a project on the nexus of anthropological and economic theory, our project garnered interest from different perspectives, which invited questions during the workshop as to our target audience and future goals. As anthropologists, we feel ideally placed to ethnographically depict realities on the ground that can contribute to wider debates. Through the simultaneous enactment of five individual research projects, we endeavour to create a temporal snapshot of the rich complexity of economic change and its engendered responses.

Wine Reception

Wine Reception